The donkey and the elephant: the two lingering symbols of American democracy. That said, it could be kind of difficult trying to connect the animals to any sort of greater ideology without stretching a bit. Is there any way you can draw a line between the measured progressiveness of the current Democratic Party to a notably stubborn creature? And while one can say that the Republican Party tends to share with the elephant a certain tendency to never forget (with the caveat that the current iteration of the party tends to have an extremely selective memory), it would be a tall order to ascribe any specific image to a group of people so seemingly at odds with each other at the current political moment.
But enough about politics. The truth is, the two party system is drastically different today from what it was when these images were originally selected or bestowed upon the Republicans and Democrats. As much as the Republican Party enjoys reminding people that they were the party of Lincoln, their current incarnation is mighty far from what it used to be (it’s actually pretty far from what it was even a few years ago). And it would be a stretch to say that the Democratic Party of today is the same one that ushered Andrew Jackson into presidency. During the election season you don’t even see the symbols that often anymore. American flags, regardless of the party, are the predominant image at any given rally or event, constantly undulating in the background on a digital screen.
So, how did these animals come to represent the two parties in the first place?
Before diving into the “party” animals, let’s look at a bit of iconography that actually puts its best face forward, the bald eagle. As a symbol of America, the bald eagle has been persistent (even as the animal itself has, at times, faced extinction)—it also really works. That maybe has to do with the long trial and error process that led to its inclusion on the Great Seal of the United States, with three separate committees (the first featured John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson) passing drafts in front of a clearly very picky Congress. Finally, Secretary of Congress Charles Thomson combined elements of all three designs, making a bird from the third committee’s design into a prominent feature and changing it from a small white eagle to the iconic bald eagle (on record, Benjamin Franklin was not a fan).
In contrast, the donkey seems like such an unusual choice. Why would one choose an animal so often relegated to a punch line. The donkey is smelly and slow, but practical for bringing cargo from place to place (if we’re going to think of the animal in frontier terms). It’s, if anything, pretty far from majestic.
But unlike the eagle, a clear decision made by people looking to represent themselves, the donkey actually started as a joke. The target? Democrat Andrew Jackson, during his 1828 presidential campaign. Opponents of Jackson called him a jackass during the election, and instead of ignoring or rejecting the name-calling, he decided to own it. He went so far as to use an image of the jackass, or donkey, in his campaign posters. Thanks to Thomas Nast, considered to be the source of the modern political cartoons as we know them, the donkey came to symbolize the entire Democratic Party by the 1870’s.
Of course, you’ll find that there’s a reason these characters mostly live on as shorthand in political cartoons: That’s where they came from in the first place. So, when it comes to the elephant, we have to again take a look at Thomas Nast. Before Nast, there’s at least one political cartoon featuring the elephant as a representation of the Republican Party—during the Civil War, when “seeing the elephant” was shorthand for going into combat. However, as canon, the elephant was made a permanent symbol thanks to Nast’s 1874 Harper’s Weekly cartoon “The Third Term Panic.” Mocking the New York Herald and its critique of Ulysses S. Grant’s potential bid for a third term as president, interest groups were each represented in the image as a corresponding animal, with “the Republican vote” depicted as an elephant. Nast continued using the elephant afterwards, as did other cartoonists, and the rest is history.